Transformation for tomorrow's world
A view from Rachel Barnes

Transformation for tomorrow's world

The trouble with transformation is that at the outset you have a goal, but during the process you realise the posts keep moving.

Transforming an existing business is "akin to changing the engines on the plane – while it is still flying".

Sir Martin Sorrell’s characteristically pithy comment in this week's feature underlines the seemingly impossible challenge of trying to genuinely reset or pivot a business when it’s operating at scale and with complexity.

Here at Campaign, we’re not quite WPP’s 200,000-strong workforce. Nonetheless, we are immersed in this ourselves – as any company should be – to ensure we are not just relevant today, but vital tomorrow. And you may have noticed we look a little different.

While the team takes a collective breath after crafting this first monthly print edition in the 49-year history of Campaign, this physical title – which we hope you will lean back and enjoy – is not the end-point of our transformation. How could it be? Excuse the cliché, but our transformation is a journey; we have our direction of travel and we’re on our way.

That’s the trouble with transformation: at the outset you have a goal, but during the process you realise the posts keep moving… and won’t stop moving. That is the reality.

As Mario Testino declares in this issue: "There is no certainty on anything. The magic is we live in an uncertain world." While I appreciate the romance of his comment, it is this intangibility that makes the word "transformation" mean everything and nothing – cast into the buzzword bingo files along with innovation, start-up culture, fail forward and fail fast. Shudder.

It’s all too easy to get bogged down in empty rhetoric. But a strategy of continuous testing and learning can help ensure that change is embedded into company culture.

One of the biggest brand transformations underway at the moment is Tesco’s. In our case study on its challenge, Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s Alison Hoad outlines how Tesco didn’t just need a new approach to marketing; it needed to repurpose the entire organisation. 

Not unlike the headache facing Sorrell, in that respect. Turning a juggernaut like WPP is no mean feat, but if an $84bn management consultancy can set up a marketing division in the form of Accenture Interactive that claims to thrive on its start-up mentality, its "culture of cultures", then it’s not impossible.

As one marketing chief said to me recently, transformation requires a rewriting of existing beliefs and rules. It’s a major risk, of course, as it must focus on future customers rather than current customers. However, a 2015 study by London Business School researchers found that the average chief executive in an established company spends only 3% of their time focused on activities to do with the future.

That’s depressing, and I’m sure not reflective of our dynamic creative industry, where the future is almost all we ever think about. 

And while we look to the future and dream of tomorrow’s world, it’s worth noting that back in the 1930s economists predicted that technological transformation would result in today’s generation working a 15-hour week. Wow. Can you imagine how efficient we’d need to become with only those hours on the clock? But for £27.5m in the bank to facilitate such a dream.

Rachel Barnes is the UK editor of Campaign.